This week I was on the train home from work when I noticed something unpleasant; I was stood in something sticky. I looked down, and followed a trail of brown liquid that had trickled its way along the carriage floor from a pool at the feet of a young girl nearby. Her bag was leaking. So I, hero that I am, tapped her on the shoulder and said, and I quote: “Your bag is leaking.” Yes, I know, please hold the applause. The girl proceeded to rummage in her bag, pull out a poorly-sealed bottle of coke and rescue her possessions.
She did not say thank you.
That’s fine. I thought to myself. She’s panicking and distracted. She’s against the clock. She’ll say thank you when she’s sorted out her stuff. She did not. Ok, well, I am on my phone so she might not want to disturb. I’ll make friendly eye contact when she gets off the train to give her a reminder of her misplaced manners. She got off the train. No thank you. No knowing nod of appreciation. Nothing.
Did I shrug it off and get on with my day? Don’t be silly. I turned to my friend Beth and proceeded to complain, incredulously, about that horrible girl’s misconduct. I could not believe that I – a total stranger with nothing to gain from the exchange – had taken the effort after a long day at work to inform this girl of her perilous situation, and she had not appreciated the amazing, lovely thing I had done. How dare she? Didn’t she know I hate interaction with other humans at the best of times? Didn’t she want to apologise for making my shoes sticky? The nerve.
I wonder now if, perhaps, I overreacted. But it happens quite a bit. So often it’s the little things that get me really riled up. When James squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube (Jerk). When the toilet roll on the toilet roll holder has run out and not been replaced, so now we’re just leaving the new roll of toilet paper on the shelf next to the toilet (like animals). When I go to get a cup of tea at work and other people are hogging the kitchen, so I have to wait around until they shuffle off back to their desks (my friends and I wanted to hog that kitchen, thank you very much). Those little things chip away at you until you make them into big things – much bigger than they ever deserved to be.
But why do we let the little things get the better of us? Why do we allow a five-minute occurrence to cast a dark shadow over the whole day? There are really bad things that happen in this world – huge injustices and horrible tragedies that are actually worth getting worked up over – so why do we become apathetic to those big things and get worked up over toilet rolls instead? I know we’re British and we like to have a moan, but I can’t remember the last time having a little moan actually did anything.
I think, because it’s a small thing, we think we can whinge it away. It’s only little so it should be fixable, right? Thus, if we complain a lot then eventually we will put the world to rights. Never mind that we’re not complaining to the person responsible, whose behaviour we want to change. The fact that we’re complaining about it makes us feel like we’re doing something, and that should be enough. Even if we’re just angry in our own heads, that’s sufficient to make us build up our frustration, feel virtuous about what a much better person we are, and hold on to that righteous rage for the rest of the day. Job done – until it happens again. Sweating the small stuff doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere.
Luckily, there’s another option. You don’t have to be this grumpy, riled up person. You don’t have to let tiny, insignificant problems mount up and eclipse the more important things. In fact, you have two other options: change it, or let it go. There are some things you have the power to fix if only you stop grumbling and just speak to the person who’s doing it. If your friend keeps flaking on your plans, tell her it annoys you. If your partner doesn’t pick up after themselves, say something. If the other people in your house haven’t changed the toilet roll, just change the toilet roll. Staring at the thing and silently seething isn’t helping anyone, so either stop letting it bother you or do something about it.
And even if it’s something you cannot change, you can always change your attitude. You can’t stop every teenager on the train having a loud conversation while you want to read your book, but you can listen in and use it as dialogue for your next novel. You can’t make your colleagues hurry out of the kitchen faster but you can enjoy the excuse to have a few extra minutes non-working time. Dance in the rain. Use traffic jams to practise your Carpool Karaoke. Bad things – big and small – happen to all of us, and we can either choose to let them into our headspace or accept them and make the best of it. And, believe me, it’s so much easier to do with the small stuff than the big stuff, so you might as well start there.
So save your rage for the things that matter. Get riled up about injustice. Be moved to action when people are in real need. Let those things influence you and the day you have, but stop worrying about the rest of it. As much as I used to moan at James for incorrectly squeezing the toothpaste, now I find I actually enjoy squeezing it from the bottom of the tube and filling in the little gap he left. Yes that’s a weird little thing to be happy about, but it’s certainly better than stressing about it instead.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti